A few years back, I was talking to a pastor in Ghana about his vision for the Presbyterian churches in his area. Later, as I looked at the notes I had made of our time together, I noticed that his desires were both universal and local.
He wanted worship services in local languages and Bible studies using the Bibles in those languages. He knew that many people in the area considered church foreign. He knew that using local languages would erode that perception. In short, he wanted the churches to be considered part of the local communities. This part of his vision was local.
But he also wanted the believers who gathered in the churches to feel that they are part of something bigger than their community. He wanted them to feel connected to other Presbyterians in Ghana and beyond and to believers around the world. This part of his vision was global.
During this time I read an article about Brexit – the UK leaving the European Union. Most voters in the UK voted to leave the EU because they wanted something more local. Others voted against because they want to be part of something larger. I see this local versus global tension in many places.
The Christians in smaller languages value the Bible in their languages for a variety of reasons, including that it gives a local expression of the faith they share with others worldwide. The Bible in their language affirms both the ethnic and linguistic identity God gave them and their belonging to God’s people worldwide. Most other things turn the local-global issue into a tension or even a fight, but not the Bible in one’s language. I remember a village chief holding high the first copy of the New Testament in his language and practically shouting “We are now part of the people of God!” He never said that if the Bible in English.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10
When Christianity first came to Africa, it was often opposed.
The widespread acceptance of Christianity we find in Africa today can hide the fact that early on there was lots of hostility and resistance toward Christianity. One source of opposition was traditional authorities – chiefs and kings. Chiefs and kings are usually closely associated with traditional religion, so some conflict between them and missionaries was inevitable.
Over time, many chiefs and kings in Africa became more open to Christianity. But they were often attracted to translations of the Bible in their languages even before they were interested in Christianity. There are several reasons for this:
– Virtually all of the languages were unwritten and missionaries were the first to write them. Because this elevated the status of the language, Chiefs – custodians of the culture and language – found it interesting. They found themselves promoting this aspect of missionary endeavor.
– When missionaries engaged in literacy, it gave people a practical skill that elevated them. Many Chiefs promoted and gave their blessing.
– Chiefs often see the development of an alphabet and literacy as valuable development efforts that help their people cope with “modern” life.
In my experience, nowadays chiefs are almost always supportive of translation. With a little effort, many will even raise money for translation and literacy including giving from their own pockets, or they will encourage their people to read the translation.
One of the laudable aspects of modern missions has been to take the Gospel to remote places and peoples. Such peoples were often considered undeveloped or even “primitive”. We’ve mostly abandoned that conception, replacing it with the idea that such peoples are authentic or that they represent an ideal way of living. Under that conception, anything that changes their traditional way of life is inauthentic – a kind of degredation or cultural pollution.
Even missionaries get caught up in this idea. I saw it in Africa when missionaries loved the people and culture in the remote place where they lived and ministered, but they disliked the cities, sometimes considering them to be less than truly African. The real Africa, for them, was rural Africa supposedly little changed through time and contact with the outside world.
Some missionaries even considered educated Africans to be less than fully African. I even heard one once say directly to a highly educated African that he was not really African when he showed that he no longer believed the local traditions about camelions.
It is certainly true that not all outside influences bring helpful change to rural peoples. Some are very destructive. But we are called to minister to the people in front of us, not some idealized version of them.
I spent my life in Bible translation into smaller languages because I believe in the power of God’s Word. I also believe that ordinary people can understand the Bible. This is not just a theoretical belief. I’ve actually seen uneducated, rural Africans read the Bible and understand it well. I’ve even seen cases where highly-qualified theologians have discovered that rural, uneducated Africans have developed very helpful understandings of topics like chronic ethnic conflicts from reading the Bible. Professional theologians missed those points but uneducated Africans found them.
God gave us his Spirit to guide us into truth. He helps us understand as we read. But to hear some talk, you’d think that the Spirit is no help at all, and that only experts using historical-critical approaches can really understand the Bible. One of the first people to translate the Bible into English was William Tyndale. Even though he was a highly trained scholar, he had complete confidence that ordinary people could understand even saying that ordinary “plowboys” would understand.
In our day, professor N T Wright has written that the Bible was not written under God’s inspiration so that it can only be properly understood by savvy, late twentieth century scholars. I agree. I’m against approaches to understanding the Bible that concentrate interpretive power in the hands of a few. Rather, I’m for putting that power in everyone’s hands.
I grew up in a church where the idea of a call to missions was promoted. The idea was that certain people heard from God a call to be a missionary. My own experience was a bit different. Knowing how important the Bible was iny own life, I was easily convinced that it would be a very good thing to spend my life giving the Bible to others by translating it into their languages.
Later, after a few years on the missions field, I encountered another understanding of a call to missions. Some missionaries would resist getting involved in some programs or activities, saying “I’m not called to that.” For example, the church in a place where we were translating would say that they wanted more literacy but the missionary would say that they weren’t called to Literacy.
It appears to me that some missionaries understand their call to missions in a very specific way. They often developed their understanding long before leaving their own country. When the realities of the place they were translating didn’t fit with their understanding of their call, they denied those realities or said that they were someone else’s responsibility by saying they weren’t called to deal with those realities.
It looked to me like they were constantly trying to shoehorn ministry according to their call into a place where it didn’t fit. They couldn’t consider that they had perhaps not fully understood their call. I remember a leading Christian in one of the countries where we worked explaining this phenomenon very well, saying that new missionaries often come with a fully developed idea of their ministry before they knew anything about the place they were going, and then they resist any changes to their conception based on the realities on the ground.
Some people go overboard trying to conform to their context, and others do the opposite trying to rigidly maintain their call. The former effectively abandon their call while the latter effectively allow no space for the voice of the Spirit.
If your car keys are missing, it’s more likely that they’re on your dresser than in another state. We look in the obvious places first. It makes sense. We solve problems the same way – by looking for the obvious solutions first. When the translation of the Bible into a language fails to progress well, we looked for the most obvious problems first. Were the translators well-trained? Did they have adequate resources? How’s their morale?
But things change when dealing with a perennial problem – one that’s been around for a while. In such cases, all the obvious solutions have already been tried. That doesn’t keep us from trying them again, however. I remember the moment that it dawned on me that we were trying the usual solutions on a translation program that had been under-performing for two decades. Church leaders were saying that something had to change but we were just trying again what had been tried several times before. The obvious was obviously not a solution.
The solution had to be in something untried, something different, something not obvious at all. The problem was that anything untried is also untested. We don’t know if it will work. But is that really a problem when all the tried and tested solutions have failed? Isn’t what might not work better than what has already failed?
I got some inspiration idfor this blog from Seth Godin Obvious. Places First
Prophesy has as one of its purposes to hasten us and give us focus. God gives prophesy not simply to tell the political future to satisfy our curiosity even if some preachers treat it that way and some Christians are looking for only that.
Instead, prophesy gives us hope and focus.
… the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come. Matthew 24:14
We ought to be encouraged because we are living in a times when this prophesy is being fulfilled. Christianity has become a world religion, not just a Western religion even though many smart people don’t yet realize that.
This prophesy has caused some to propose that we should support missions to hasten Jesus’s return. But we don’t hurry God or give him focus. In fact, the the opposite is actually the case. However, God is responsive to our engagement with him. He changed his mind about Nineveh in response to Jonah’s preaching. We are players. What we pray, and do, and say matters to God. He takes those things into account in what he does and when he does it.
God has set out his grand scheme for our world and universe – to make it all new, whole and righteous. It’s the greatest endeavor in human history. If you join it, you will be part of making it happen. So far, many millions of people have been part of a key component in God’s scheme – seeing that the Good News about the Kingdom is preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations hear it. Those involved have helped set the stage for the great renewal. There’s still room for more. Join the urgent task of making all things new.
A wonk is a person who is preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field. It is often used in politics in the phrase “policy wonk” to refer to a person who knows fine details of government law and policy.
Jesus had to deal with wonks among the religious leaders of his day. He said to them:
“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life. – John 5:39-40
They were Bible experts who missed the main point. They knew the arcane details in the Bible but missed its heart. They were Bible wonks; fascinated by Bible details and facts, but without affection for the person speaking through the text – God.
Working in another culture can make a person a wonk – someone who finds the other culture fascinating but has no real affection for the people.
Translating the Bible requires mastering the details of the Bible, of the language, and of the culture. It can make you into an wonk – a very competent technician lacking a heart for those who speak the language.
The search for justice also creates wonks – people who expertly manage their public stance by knowing and saying the right words and phrases, and being quick to criticize when others aren’t as fastidious. Their justice consists of wonk-approved incantations.
Whatever you to do, don’t do it like a wonk.
I have written several times that translation committees are key to the success of translation in Africa. Have good translators is also important, of course. A translation committee is a group of carefully selected volunteers from the language community who oversee the work of the translators including setting goals, raising funds, creating awareness and organizing the sale and distribution of the translation. How well the committee does its job can affect how well the translation is accepted and how widely it is distributed and read. If it does not work well, some churches might just refuse to use translation, sticking with English or a regional language.
Siwu committee with regional translation coordinator
The translation into the Siwu language in Ghana’s Volta Region had a very dynamic and well-known translator who raised a lot of awareness for the translation and promoted it. When he fell ill and passed away, the translation committee knew that it would have to pick up the slack. Michael Serchie, the regional translation coordinator (center front) helped the community update the committee and revitalize it.
Michael is serving translation programs in more than a dozen languages. But even his wise and dynamic leadership is not enough if the language communities themselves are not interested enough to get involved. Sometimes, it takes a dramatic turn of events to get things moving. Michael saw that was happening and jumped in.
Pray for the translation in Siwu, and for the committee that they would work hard to see it widely used and distributed.